It's time to run the Derby at night

Running the race at night would invite a larger audience

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 26, 2010 

LOUISVILLE — Churchill Downs, take the next step in the age of en-light-enment.

Run the Kentucky Derby at night.

Prime time.

"I think it's inevitable," said four-time Derby winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas on Saturday.

I agree. It's coming. It's just a matter of time. With the lights now a successful and permanent fixture at Churchill Downs, with most every sport staging its most popular event before the largest possible television audience, the time has come for the Derby to take the plunge.

"I don't think it's out of the realm of possibilities," said trainer Todd Pletcher on Saturday. "The only thing I can say is that we need to do everything we can to promote our sport, and get new viewers and more people."

"Television rules the world," said Lukas.

Horse racing does not rule the world. You know the doom and gloom. It's a dying sport. Interest is fading.

"We have trouble with sponsorship and getting ads sold and stuff," Lukas said. "Television has dropped from ABC and NBC to major networks to ESPN, and could be going even another direction. It may be have something we just have to deal with."

Deal with what, exactly, having more people watch your sport?

Look at the NFL Draft. From 2001 to 2009, when the draft caught on as a television event, viewership grew from 23.5 million to 35 million. Thursday night, when televised in prime time for the first time, draft viewership jumped 30 percent.

"Our ratings would probably quadruple," Lukas said.

The Super Bowl kicks off at 6:30 on a Sunday night. All of the Final Four games are played at night. Each game of the NBA Finals is played at night. Why even the Chicago Cubs now play baseball at night?

I know, I know, what about the pageantry? What about the "sun shines bright" on My Old Kentucky Home? What about the sundresses and the spring suits on a warm May day?

What about having well over 100,000 patrons spending the day happily imbibing in anticipation of the big event — in the Derby's case, probably while betting a 20-race card; get ready for the Pick 10 — then being freed late at night on the city streets?

Oh yeah, that's a college football game.

"I don't think it would be a good idea," argued three-time Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert last week. "The thing that makes the Derby is when they show it during the day, see the people, the balloons, sky. You can't catch that at night. ... This thing, it's so spread out, you wouldn't get the crowd. You wouldn't be able to see it so it would take away from it."

A fair point.

"That's a tough one, because you are breaking away from tradition," Pletcher said. "And you might put some horses in a difficult situation in the biggest race, but at the end of the day, anything that is positive for the sport I'm for."

Truth is, that stubborn death grip on tradition is partly responsible for the troubles racing faces these days. The sport has often been too slow to adapt, too hesitant to try new things in the name of growing its audience.

Yet, despite its problems, the Kentucky Derby remains racing's shining light. It's the one race the general public actually knows about, cares about.

And to its credit, so often the Derby delivers, whether it be the spectacular Secretariat (1973), or the heat-tugging "I love you Mrs. Genter (trainer Carl Nafzger to winning owner Mrs. Frances Genter when Unbridled won in 1990), or the regal elegance of a Barbaro (2006).

Those moments were made for television.

Prime-time television.

"We're trying to make our sport better and get it a better following," Lukas said. "Night racing may do it."

A Kentucky Derby run at night would do it.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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